Peter Gabriel fights injustice with video

Peter Gabriel fights injustice with video

Power & the Rule of Man

In this talk, Peter Gabriel spoke about WITNESS. Begun in 1992, WITNESS enables people to make video documentaries to tell the world about human rights abuses. Gabriel described the individual photographers as brave. Indeed, the violent WITNESS recordings suggests “bravery” is an understatement. Authorities with power know the significance of video documentation. After all, many people understand power corrupts. And there are many more who know it corrupts absolutely.

Power v. the Rule of Law

On November 26, 2012, an ABA Journal item addressed recording of authorities in America after the United States Supreme Court refused to review a Seventh Circuit decision about an Illinois criminal statute. The statute made it a felony to record the audio of “all or any part of any conversation” unless all parties to the conversation give their consent. Additionally, the crime carried four to fifteen years in prison if one of the recorded individuals were performing duties as a police officer. American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois v. Anita Alvarez, No. 11-1286 (7th Cir. 2012) available at (last visited February 6, 2017).

In this case, ACLU-Illinois had planned a “police accountability program” in Chicago. The program involved openly recording official police conduct in public places. In addition to recording video, the activists were also to record audio of police and individuals speaking at a volume bystanders could hear.

ACLU-Illinois intended, among other things, to record police at protests and demonstrations (“expressive activities”) on streets, sidewalks, plazas, and parks (“public fora”). The organization also planned to record police at expressive activities carried out by its members. To protect videographers from criminal charges, ACLU sought to prevent enforcement of the statute on First Amendment grounds.Ibid.

Rule of Law Prevails

The Seventh Circuit found the statute restricted far more speech than necessary to protect its legitimate interests. Applying the principle that audio and video recordings are among expressive media commonly used to preserve and share information and ideas, the Circuit Court determined the First Amendment also protects making these recordings. Thus, the Circuit Court found the statute would violate the First Amendment’s free-speech and free-press guarantees if applied to ACLU videographers.Ibid.

Notably, the Seventh Circuit ruling is limited to the Illinois statute. Other jurisdictions have considered the issue, including but not limited to the First Federal Circuit, and the State of Oregon. Laws may vary in different jurisdictions. To avoid legal consequences, one ought to find out the law where one lives and plan accordingly.

Michael A. Smolensky, Esquire, fights injustice in courtrooms across New Jersey.

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